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The Final Report from the Accord review of Australia’s universities has landed, with 47 recommendations emerging from its damning assessment of the dysfunctional condition of our ‘unified national system’.

The document responds thoughtfully to a great many of the issues the sector has been calling for, so the review panel has certainly ‘listened’. Positive recommendations include the establishment of a central planning and coordinating body, the Australian Tertiary Education Commission, the ‘remediation’ of the deluded Jobs Ready Graduates program, a revision of the HECS/HELP student loan scheme to make it a little less punitive, and a weary reprise of some of the 2008 Bradley Review’s attempts to address inequities in access and participation.

The key takeaway from the report, however, is its conclusive view that our universities are busted.

Students are dropping out, academics are burning out, and government has been tuned out for decades

As campuses filled up again last week for the start of the academic year, the signs were all bad. Student enrolments have plateaued, drop-out rates are at an historic peak (over 25% now), school-leavers are deferring, and there are reports of a significant number of young Australians undertaking their education elsewhere because it is cheaper — both in upfront fees and future debts. As for academic staff, the erosion of working conditions has been so substantial that many if not most younger academic staff are looking to exit the sector, and there is now an entrenched division between many academics and their university administrations.

The sector is full of bloated Marvel-size super-universities, all doggedly competing on the same turf, all dishing out the same promotional guff as they jostle around their spurious points of difference. Politically retrofitted into a competitive market place, our university system has no place for smaller, more focused, more diverse, or more nimble, institutions.

Decades of poor policy decisions have had their effect — sometimes in unintended ways.

Richard Denniss shocked his audience at the National Press Club a couple of weeks ago when he revealed that the federal government collected more in student loan repayments ($4.9 billion) than it did in tax from the petroleum resources rent tax ($2.2 billion). We are taxing our children for their pursuit of an education more than we tax those enterprises making super-profits from extracting our natural resources.

There will be many in the sector who will be encouraged by the Report’s clear recognition that things are now broken and need to be fixed. Specific recommendations on increased research funding and a revised national funding model might also cheer some folks up. But we have been here before, and little was done. Now that even more needs to be done, you wonder just how much political will can be summoned and sustained.  With no dollars in the mix (except, weirdly, a new tax on the sector itself!) and no votes in higher education, it is hard to be confident that much is going to change.

No joy at the coalface

The Report is explicitly ‘student-centred’, with a particular focus on equity. And it is very much a policy-oriented document, examining the structural frameworks the system works within.

However, not only are students less keen to go to university, and are on campus less often when they do, but academics are also much less interested in working there. The deterioration in working conditions for academic staff has been substantial — ballooning enrolments, unmanageable workloads, precarious employment, time-consuming audit cultures, the excision of study leave, endlessly accelerating demands on performance (‘deliver’ via multiple platforms, apply for another grant, recruit more graduate students, ‘engage with end-users’, be more ‘entrepreneurial’).

To get some sense of the scale of the challenges academics have faced, just one small illustrative statistic. Between 2001 and 2020 in the ‘Society and Culture’ field of education, the number of students enrolled has increased by 80% while the number of fulltime staff has increased by 8%!

Management disinterest in addressing the decline in conditions has dramatically heightened the sense of alienation academics feel from their university’s administrations. As Raewyn Connell pointed out back in 2019, it is telling that during wage negotiations with academic staff, university management in Australia refers to itself, not the academics, as ‘The University’.

What’s wrong with our universities includes what it is like to work in them. The reason why that doesn’t figure large in the Report is that most of what it’s like is the result of choices that individual managers in individual institutions have made. True, while poor funding is the main driver of these choices, many of the resultant problems could actually be fixed, at a stroke, by better decisions made at the institutional level. (The extent of casualisation, for instance, is a choice.)

Rather than contemplate that, one faculty in a university I won’t name provided its staff with a ‘helpful’ guide on ‘how to avoid and deal with university burn out’. Clearly, fixing those working conditions responsible for the burn out was out of the question; ‘dealing with it’ was a personal responsibility.

What next generation?

The effects are borne disproportionally by junior staff through the workloads they carry (they do most of the teaching), the terms of their employment (most are casuals), the added responsibilities they are often required to take on (such as convening subjects), and the levels of precarity they must endure just to stay in the game (there are few continuing positions). All while trying to develop a research profile in order to secure more permanent employment.

Unfortunately, their idealistic commitment to a future in university teaching and research simply makes them vulnerable to systemic exploitation. It may be through neglect rather than design, but we are rapidly burning through the next generation of university teachers and researchers.

That’s a workforce issue that the Final Report only briefly touches on. None of the 47 recommendations are going to significantly affect this dimension of what’s gone wrong with our universities.

This is about how our institutions are run, by whom, and in whose interests.


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